How Presidents Used to Take Us to War


Woodrow Wilson bluntly confronted Congress with some of the extraordinary costs the nation would bear from entering World War I.woodrow.jpg

Reflect on this passage from the speech that Woodrow Wilson gave when he asked Congress to bring the U.S. into World War I by declaring war on Germany in 1917:

What this will involve is clear. It will involve the utmost practicable cooperation in counsel and action with the governments now at war with Germany, and, as incident to that, the extension to those governments of the most liberal financial credits, in order that our resources may so far as possible be added to theirs. It will involve the organization and mobilization of all the material resources of the country to supply the materials of war and serve the incidental needs of the nation in the most abundant and yet the most economical and efficient way possible. It will involve the immediate full equipment of the Navy in all respects but particularly in supplying it with the best means of dealing with the enemy's submarines.

It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law in case of war at least 500,000 men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service, and also the authorization of subsequent additional increments of equal force so soon as they may be needed and can be handled in training. It will involve also, of course, the granting of adequate credits to the Government, sustained, I hope, so far as they can equitably be sustained by the present generation, by well conceived taxation....

That came to my attention via Freddie deBoer, whose new blog is worth your while, as are his comments about that passage. "It's necessary to consider the United States at a time when isolation was a far more politically popular stance than it is now," he writes. "Here, Wilson unveils his demands of Congress: we've got to lend tons of money to foreign governments; we've got to start rationing essential goods that Americans rely on; we've got to spend a ton of money on a navy; we've got to take at least 500,000 men from their homes and families and send them to war, through the draft no less; oh, and by the way, we've got to rack up huge debts to do it."

It's hard to imagine a president being so frank today with the American people or Congress. In fact, asking Congress' permission is even going out of fashion.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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